When a loved one goes to prison, the emotional turmoil can be painful for many family members. But the children of incarcerated parents often carry the heaviest burden. 

While looking for an EPICS in IEEE project that would make a difference, leaders of the IEEE Student Branch of Xi’an Jiaotong University in Xi’an, China, learned about the Xi’an Children’s Village. For over 20 years, its mission has been to shelter and care for children of incarcerated parents. Staff at eh non-profit home look after about 80 children and ensure a warm, loving atmosphere. It helps to counter the children’s deep sense of loss, as well as the depression and shame felt by the very youngest. 

Located in a mountainous area some distance from Xi’an, a majors northwestern city of more than 5.5 million people, the village had experienced problems with its power supply in recent summers. Frequent blackouts caused by power rationing in the region’s electrical grid create anxiety for all, especially the children. Their daily routine is disrupted, along with their already fragile sense of security and wellbeing. 

In 2015, the IEEE Student Branch at XJTU submitted a proposal for a low-power photovoltaic power system for the children’s home – enough for lighting and other necessary electrical needs during blackouts. An $8,200 grant was approved for a two-year period. When completed, the student members hope the system will demonstrate the effectiveness of renewable energy sources to a small town adjacent to the home, and if the town can obtain funding, the students plan to provide it with a grid-connected renewable power system.

Meanwhile, XJTU students have involved high school students from an affiliated high school in helping plan, design, and build the system. This hands-on aspect is introducing the high schoolers to engineering and renewable energy and establishing the value of an engineering career. Youngsters at the home are also being introduced to electrical engineering and renewable energy topics – and older children will be encouraged to take part in building the power system.

Out of the darkness, there’s optimism for bright, positive futures for all.